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Sunday, December 26, 2004


Motorways and Miss Marple

The British have an odd attitude to motorways. We love using them (they are overcrowded most of the time), yet we make such a hash of building and operating them.

I was struck by this on Christmas Eve, when I drove south through the centre of France on the new
A75 autoroute (motorway), which cuts through the middle of the Massif Central mountains between Clermont Ferrand and the Mediterranean.

I stopped at the 'Volcans d'Auvergne' service station just north of Clermont Ferrand ('volcans' refers to the extinct volcanoes in this region). Among the amenities is a large gift shop, 'La Maison des Volcans', selling a wide range of locally-produced food specialities and handicrafts.

This is not unusual in France; every motorway service station has at least a small selection of regional produce on sale and many, like this one, have an entire shop devoted to it. It is also normal to find local tourist information available. French service stations are operated by private corporations, yet manage to offer genuine variety for the consumer and support for local small enterprises.

Compare this with Britain. Every service station is a clone, with identical branded outlets offering corporate mass-produced goods. It's the same wherever you go. The private operators of these service stations run concessions licensed by the government - there is a good case for making it a condition of future concessions that licensees must support local producers and local tourism. If nothing else, it would help relieve the monotony of British motorway travel.

Further south, I encountered a second contrast. I crossed the spectacular new viaduct at Millau (opened by President Chirac earlier this month), the highest road bridge in the world. This is actually an Anglo-French project, designed by British architect Norman Foster and constructed by the French company that built the Eiffel Tower (more info available on the official website and also on this French-language site).

The French take pride in their 'grands projets'. If you are going to have a new motorway or airport, they reason, you may as well produce a stunning design and generate some pride in these things.

In Britain, we increasingly wish to use airports and motorways but don't want them in our back yard. We are also terminally cynical and tend to see hubris where none exists. One only has to recall the press treatment of the Channel Tunnel over the past twenty years to realise this. Or consider the absurdity of the so-called 'environmentalists' who object to wind farms because they "spoil the view".

If the town of Millau were in Britain, the local residents would have objected to a new bridge, no matter how well-designed, yet would have continued to moan about the traffic jams in their town.

As a result of this small-mindedness, Britain ends up with bland or half-cocked designs and a general air of shabbiness about its civil projects. The mixture of ugliness and unfriendliness reaches its nadir at Heathrow airport, where most of Britain's foreign visitors first arrive. Presumably the idea is that, after first being hit in the face with Heathrow, foreigners will find everything else about Britain a pleasant surprise.

Our Victorian forbears had pride in their civil projects - look at the Forth Rail Bridge or St Pancras station (where the contrast with the neighbouring new British Library building symbolises everything that has gone wrong). The British lost their sense of confidence at some point during the twentieth century, at first resorting to brutal modernism, then retreating into fake classicism or twee suburbanism (Prince Charles's model village of
Poundbury is a monument to this British loss of nerve).

Most British people want all the amenities of a modern society, yet desire to live in a fantasy Miss Marple-style village. I don't know about you, but if I lived in the same sort of suffocating village society as Miss Marple, I'd feel like murdering somebody.

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